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Muslim family’s kin grieves ‘theft of precious life’ as convicted killer’s sentencing in London, Ont., begins

Warning: This story contains distressing details:

It stood out as a particularly painful moment in a day filled with grief and sorrow in a London, Ont., courtroom: a relative detailed how he told a nine-year-old boy, who was lying injured in a hospital room, that his family had been in a car crash and no one survived. 

“‘Not even one?'” the uncle, Ali Islam, said the boy asked him. 

Islam was among several people giving victim impact statements at the sentencing hearing Thursday for Nathaniel Veltman, who was found guilty in November of four counts of murder and one count of attempted murder in the pickup truck attack on a Muslim family in June 2021. The 10-week jury trial was held in Windsor.

Thursday was the first of two days set aside for family, friends and others to speak in London’s Superior Court about how the crime has impacted them and the Muslim community — as the 23-year-old convicted killer looked on and listened.

“What words could I possibly say?” Islam said, referring to telling the boy that his mom, dad, sister and grandmother had all died. “The unjustness of their deaths is a theft, the theft of precious life. I’m questioning and requestioning the priorities in my life, knowing that any moment it can all be erased by another human being.” 

The Afzaals were out for an evening walk in suburban London when they were struck by the truck driven by Veltman. Yumnah Afzaal, 15, her parents, Madiha Salman, 44, and Salman Afzaal, 46, and family matriarch Talat Afzaal, 74, were killed. The boy was injured but survived.

Two people in court
Tabinda Bukhari, right, mother of Madiha Salman, 44, one of the victims in the June 2021 truck attack, is shown in a court sketch, with Ontario Superior Court Justice Renee Pomerance, left, at the sentencing hearing for Nathaniel Veltman on Thursday. (Pam Davies/CBC)

About 70 victim impact statements were slated to be read in court, with the boy, who’s now 11, expected to speak on Friday.

The third day of the sentencing hearing has been set for Jan. 23, when lawyers will present legal arguments about whether or not the attack constituted terrorism. Justice Renee Pomerance will make that determination, which won’t affect the killer’s sentence — life without parole possibility for 25 years — but could impact the programs he has access to in prison and later his parole eligibility.

‘He took the light that illuminated our family’

Ayesha Shaukat, whose brother, Salman, and mother, Talat, were killed, told the hearing Thursday: “The offender didn’t just take lives. He took the light that illuminated our family. The emotional wreckage is insurmountable.

“The loss we have suffered is immeasurable and finding words to convey the depth of pain is a daunting task. Our home, once filled with warmth, now echoes with emptiness.” 

Court was told that the Afzaal family was targeted because of their Muslim faith, and fear of other attacks lingers.  

“My reality is that my hijab is a target for the hate-filled. Sometimes, I feel like a walking bullseye,” said Sidra Jamal, sister-in-law of Salman and Madiha. “Worse, my hijab makes my family a target, too. The fear does not go away. Perhaps, it never will.” 

WATCH | Relatives describe their grief to the court: 

Relatives of a murdered Muslim family describe their anguish in court

4 hours ago

Duration 2:50

Raw grief and pain were on full display in a London, Ont., courtroom as victim impact statements were read out on day one of Nathaniel Veltman’s sentencing hearing. He is convicted of running down and killing four members of the Afzaal family in 2021.

Tabinda Bukhari, Madiha’s mother, told the court the family has been “weighed down by grief” since the attack. She said she moved to Canada after the truck attack to help take care of the boy who was left badly injured and orphaned. 

“I see reflections of Madiha and Salman in so many of his mannerisms. To hide my tears, I just hug him tight and tell him ‘You look like your mom and dad,'” she said. “I and all the loving caregivers are trying to give him as normal childhood as we can. May be always be protected from all evil and harm.”  

Cousins of Yumnah Afzaal detailed the loss of a kind-hearted girl who loved to laugh and hang out with friends and family.

“She had so much potential and a lifetime ahead of her to change the world, this same world that let her down in the end,” said Ayesha Islam. “I search for you in every face I see, every conversation I have. My once happy memories are laced with a poison so agonizing that my grief becomes all-consuming.” 

a court sketch of nathaniel veltman.
A court sketch of Veltman shows him listening to testimony at his murder and terrorism trial on Sept. 28. (Pam Davies/CBC)

Before the sentencing hearing began, members of the Muslim community spoke about the need for Canada to stand up against Islamophobia and take concrete actions to make people feel safe.

“The pain felt by the family and the community is real. The grief is real. The struggle, the sense of fear, the apprehension and lack of safety and security are all real,” said Imam Abd Alfatah Twakkal, chair of the London Council of Imams. 

“I personally have dealt with family members who were verbally abused, spat at and assaulted for being visibly Muslim. We must ask ourselves, ‘Is this who we want to be?’ What type of society do we want our children to be raised in? As Canadians, we can do better than this. We need to take concrete steps to change, to eradicate all forms of hate in our society.”  

Several family members appeared via Zoom from Pakistan, where the Afzaals lived before moving to Canada. Court heard that six months prior to the family being killed, Madiha’s father died from COVID-19.

“We lost our father, and while we were grieving him, this act of malignant hatred happened,” said Azhar Ghani, one of Madiha’s younger brothers. 

“I’ve never seen this many victim impact statements. It goes to show the sense of loss that the community felt as a result of Mr. Veltman’s actions,” said Trevin David, a Toronto criminal defence lawyer who wasn’t involved in the case and was interviewed before the sentencing hearing began.

“It’s meant to give the victims or those who knew them a voice, to allow the court and the offender to hear what they meant to them. In a way, it’s a little bit like a eulogy. We’ll hear about the people who were killed, their personalities, things you wouldn’t normally see during the trial itself.” 

Nusaiba Al-Azem, director of legal affairs for the National Council of Canadian Muslims, addressed reporters outside court early Thursday.

“During the trial, we learned a lot about how online commentary contributed to the offender’s radicalization,” Al-Azem said. “He wished that his attack would serve as a message to Muslims and a message to other like-minded individuals that they need not acquire sophisticated weaponry to carry out an attack. . 

“These messages have hurt and they have left echoing vibrations on an already vulnerable population.”

Pickup truck attack deliberate, trial told

The trial was told the killer deliberately drove his pickup truck into the family, and he wanted to teach Muslims a lesson so they would be frightened and leave Canada. He had purchased a large truck just weeks before the attack and told police officers he was a white nationalist. 

The attack led to an outpouring of sympathy and calls for action against Islamophobia by political leaders, as well as marches and solidarity from ordinary Canadians. 

an imam speaks outside a courthouse in front of cameras
Imam Abd Alfatah Twakkal, chair of the London Council of Imams, speaks outside the London court ahead of the sentencing hearing that began Thursday. (Greg Bruce/CBC)

The trial also marked a first in Canada as it allowed the jury to consider terrorism as part of their deliberations.

The victim impact statements won’t affect the sentence the killer will get, because in Canada, first-degree murder convictions carry an automatic life term with no chance of parole for 25 years.

The statements may, however, affect the sentence for attempted murder that will run concurrently with the first-degree murder sentence, as well as the judge’s ultimate determination of the facts of the case. Pomerance is expected to lay out whether she agrees with the prosecution that the killer’s attack was an act of terrorism. 

Terrorism in Canadian law is defined as an act motivated by political, ideological or religious ideas, and intended to intimidate a segment of the population.  

If Pomerance finds the attack amounted to terrorism, it could affect the killer’s parole eligibility or requirements.

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